When Father Jerome Molokie learned that his community’s newly released CD “Christmas at St. Michael’s Abbey: Chants for the Three Masses of Christmas” was on its second run of being duplicated, he wasn’t surprised.
In his view, people like chant; it transcends religious borders.
“What did surprise me was that after the 1990 success of ‘Chant’ [by the Benedictine Monks of Santo Domingo de Silos, Spain], Gregorian chant never disappeared from popularity,” said the 47-year-old priest.
Father Molokie is a Norbertine priest at St. Michael’s Abbey in the famed wine country of Silverado, Calif.
This monastery is home to more than 60 priests, and seminarians also run a small all-boys’ college preparatory school on the monastery grounds.
Two years ago, Father Molokie was the cantor and music director for the abbey when the initial recordings of these Christmas chants were made on recording equipment that the community owned. These recordings were made into CDs and sent out as Christmas gifts to friends and benefactors of the abbey.
What turned out to be a homemade gift from the abbey has turned into an international hit due to the discovery of this sacred sound by Jade Music.
Earlier this year, Stefan Karrer of Jade Music, located in the suburban Los Angeles area, contacted Father Molokie with hopes of having the abbey’s store carry some of Jade’s classical and sacred recordings. When Father Molokie shared with Karrer that his community had done some recordings of their own, Karrer said he would take a listen. He was inspired by what he heard.
“We were all very impressed by the quality, vigor and energy of their voices. It was fresh and different. The sound was unique,” said Karrer, who also has been surprised by the CD’s success. “We knew that the album had potential, but we didn’t expect such enthusiasm from retailers, journalists, radio hosts and the general public.”
Jade Music, a subsidiary of French recording company Milan Records, has found a niche in producing quality classical and sacred music for more than 20 years.
Whether recording the Benedictine monks in Silos, Spain, or the Children’s Choir of Saint-Marc in Lyon, France, Karrer noted that great attention is paid to the quality of the sound, packaging, and the liner notes of each record project.
“We want to keep these albums authentic and genuine,” said Karrer. “We market the records for what they are, not for what some people would like them to be. We do not sell a lifestyle. A Catholic record has to remain Catholic.”
To keep the Norbertines’ album authentic, Karrer went to St. Michael’s to make additional recordings of the church bell and the surrounding sounds of birds and nature, which can be heard between the CD tracks.
Gregorian chant scholar and author Father Jerome Weber from Utica, N.Y., estimates that he has more than 4,000 or 5,000 chant CDs and records in his music collection. One of them is the St. Michael’s Christmas CD, which he was impressed with. His sole complaint was that the CD was only 40 minutes long.
“The Norbertines seem to have preserved their style very well,” said the retired priest, who has written extensively on Gregorian chant in his more than 50 years of priesthood. “I have other recordings from Norbertine monasteries in the Netherlands, Belgium, France and Austria, all very well done.”
The Norbertines trace their beginnings to Christmas Day 1121, when St. Norbert made vows with his first group of followers at Premontre, a valley in northern France. Norbert chose the Rule of St. Augustine as the way of life for his followers. These first Norbertines led an intensely ascetic and liturgical life marked by poverty and silence.
According to Father Molokie, these monastic or liturgical traditions are still very much alive. Learning sacred chant at St. Michael’s starts in the seminary and becomes part of daily life.
“For the first two years after they enter, there is a daily chant class five days a week for about 45 minutes,” said Father Molokie. In addition, the community’s Divine Office, daily prayers and weekly Masses fluctuate between singing in English and Latin.
Is this attraction to Gregorian chant simply a passing fad?
In the words of Father Weber, the answer is definitively No. He noted the numerous sacred music conferences he attends each year, as well as the growth in vocations to monastic communities where the ancient liturgy and sacred chant is very much thriving.
Father Molokie is proud to admit that he was attracted to the Norbertines because of their strong liturgical traditions.
“I know I entered because of the chant,” he said. “I know several other priests and seminarians have entered because of our Gregorian chant and the traditional religious life we live at the abbey.”
Eddie O’Neill writes from
Green Bay, Wisconsin.
FOR MORE INFORMATION: St. Michael’s Abbey AbbeyNews.com (949) 858-0222 Jade Music Jade-Music.com